The most dominant subject in Sefer Vayikra is the Divine service to be performed in the Temple, and particularly – the sacrificial service. Today, 2,000 years removed from this form of service, we have a special need for illumination of this subject so that we may relate to it in our own existential context.
In the verse that introduces the subject of sacrifices, God tells Moshe:
“If any person offers, from [among] you, a sacrifice to God, from the animals – from cattle or from sheep – shall you offer your sacrifice” (Vayikra 1:2).
The linguistic formulation of this verse, in the Hebrew, is highly convoluted and raises a great many difficulties. Perhaps the most perplexing question concerns the expression, “from you” (in Hebrew – ‘mi-kem’), which does not seem to situated in its natural place in the verse. If the verse were to read, “If any person from you offers a sacrifice to God…”, the meaning of the expression would be clear: the text would be talking about a person from amongst the nation of Israel who offers a sacrifice – as opposed to a gentile who comes with an offering. According to halakha, non-Jews are also permitted to offer sacrifices in the Temple, but there are halakhic differences between their sacrifices and those offered by Jews.
But the Torah chooses to arrange the verse differently: “If any person offers, from you, a sacrifice to God…” – and this changes the meaning. What the text implies here is that “from you” refers not to the person offering the sacrifice, but rather to the sacrifice itself. Thus, the Torah seems to be referring to human sacrifice: the sacrifice itself is “from among you”.
Obviously, this interpretation is very troubling and problematic – firstly, because the continuation of the verse immediately contradicts it: “from the animals – from the cattle or from the sheep shall you offer your sacrifice”. Secondly, the Torah’s abhorrence of human sacrifice is well-known, and finds expression, for example, in the prohibitions against the worship of Ba’al (a god whose worship involved human sacrifice).
The commentators offer many different explanations for this expression. We shall examine here the interpretation of Rabbi Ovadia Seforno:
“’If any person offers, from among you’ – meaning, offering from the depths of your selves, with oral confession and submission… for God has no desire for fools who offer sacrifices without prior submission…”.
According to Seforno, the two parts of the verse are not contradictory at all; the first part sheds light on the second part, and without it we could not understand its deeper significance. When the Torah speaks of animal sacrifices, it approaches a very dangerous trap. Offering sacrifices may easily end up being perceived as a sort of automatic system for eliminating past sins. A person who commits a certain sin comes to the Temple, offers his sacrifice, and then goes home, quite certain that there is no memory of his sin. Moreover, the Temple itself may come to be perceived as a sort of insurance against sin. If a person knows that any mistake that he makes can be atoned for by bringing a sacrifice, then he no longer has any reason to fear making mistakes, and he will become accustomed to acting with a total lack of prudence.
This view of the Temple and of the sacrifices renders them not only ineffective, but actually harmful. We do not believe in automatic atonement for a person’s sins. If a person subscribes to such a view, the institution of the Temple will in fact be allowing him to sin more easily, and the “insurance” of the sacrifices will become a license for a person to do whatever he pleases.
The Torah warns us, with that single word – ‘mi-kem’ – that the reality is quite different. Before listing the various animals that may be brought as sacrifices, the Torah emphasizes that the sacrifice is “from you”. The Torah demands human sacrifice – not, heaven forefend, in the vulgar, pagan sense, in which human beings were butchered and offered as sacrifices to appease the gods. The Torah demands a sacrifice not in the form of a person’s body, but rather the involvement of his heart. The word ‘mi-kem’ reminds us that an integral part of the sacrifice is the process of genuinely, wholeheartedly regretting the past and making a decision to act differently in the future (as expressed in the confession which is recited); this is the part of the person that is sacrificed to God.
By changing the position of a single word, the Torah teaches us the deeper meaning that must suffuse actions which would otherwise seem altogether technical.